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Monday, August 29, 2005

Tired

[Those who have been reading regularly know our intrepid (if weary) adventurer has been wending his way along a branch of the Silk Road. Here's a link to a program called Silk Road Seattle which you may find interesting. This map gives an idea of the region where Alan is currently resting his bones.--ed.]

Sometimes when traveling, you wish for a break, a vacation within a vacation as it were, especially when you are moving from place to place with little time to stop and absorb everything and just relax. In the past I have preferred to spend long amounts of time in each place I visit, three weeks here, three there, maybe one or two here. Now, in China, I just want to see everything, and though I know it is impossible, that desire has been driving me along at a brutal pace. Then a breakdown. Or rather, several breakdowns, on a bus. A 36-hour bus ride and a 4 AM arrival in a town I was not anticipating arriving in for another three or four days.

My time in Yining was hit and miss. Yining has a relaxed pace, as I mentioned earlier, and the people were friendly enough. Then, there was an overlong bus drive to see Sayram Lake, and then going back the same day. The German guy I was with was not feeling great, and for the first time my stomach was not feeling the best either. Then I went to try to get permission to go to Nalati. [I'm going to ask Alan for some clarification. The Nalati grasslands seem to be including on a lot of tour itineraries, but perhaps that has changed, or else he's looking to go somewhere specific.--ed.] That permission was denied. Maybe in ten years it will be open to foreigners the lady told me. She said she asked three superiors, but they all said no and for me to have any chance I would have to go all the way back to Ulumuqi and ask someone in the military.

So the decision was made that I would head off to Kuqa instead, thinking the drive would last 20 hours at most...wrong. First there was the usual wait to leave the bus station. After a half hour we drove a mile to another bus station. Then we waited two hours while the drivers tried to fix something (one of the drivers had already told me it was a bad bus and that I would have been better off getting a bus to Ulumuqi and changing there). Then the bus was ready and the other passengers, most of them Uigher and Kazakh wearing bright and quaint outfits (I say quaint because of the little girl wearing the pink dress and the women wearing dirty white leggings under their flowered dresses and these pointy toed high heeled shoes that made me thinnk of the Wizard of Oz).

Three hours late we started. Then we stopped for gas, and then for food. Then we had our first breakdown. It took us 6 hours to reach Sayram Lake (and I had been upset when it took more than three the day before). There were several more breakdowns along the way. Then while passing a military convoy our bus hit the back of one of the trucks, tearing our door most of the way off. Then the people from our bus argued with the military men for about an hour while everyone crowded around and either listened or added their two cents. At last it was decided to go up to the next town to make a report with the traffic police...so there was our bus being followed by 5 or 6 army vehicles. Fun!

About and hour-and-a-half before we were to arrive in Kuqa, we stopped for dinner (it was about 12:30 AM) and buses came and went and we still did not leave. Then we did. It was 4 AM when I arrived at the hotel. And then, at 4 as I was checking into a room, a taxi driver started asking me about taking a tour the following morning.

So what do you do during a 36-hour bus ride.. One thing you must not do is complain, or think about how horrible it is. I couldn't help but laugh (a sarcastic laugh granted) at each unexpected stop when my companions took it all in stride. And it was interesting talking to the bus driver to hear real cyncism about certain things in relation to bus travel here. I read as much as I could during the day, and wrote when the road wasn't too bumpy. I tried to lose myself in daydreams when I needed to rest my eyes, or to remember happy moments with Natalia or in different experiences. I tried to think about all the steps in my life, good and bad that have brought me to this point. I tried to budget use of my iPod so as not to use up all the battery too fast. I took pics when I had a chance and through this made a good friend with a young girl sitting with her mom in the bed next to me. She liked to smack me when I was walkng past her and to pull my leg hair when we were just sitting.

At dinner the first night I had a great encounter with a Uigher man. I won't discuss things we talked about now, but maybe a day in the future. He did say he loved America, though, and shared a lot of pictures with me from his trips in China. He is very proud of his step-brother who can speak German and English and who lives and teaches in Australia. The man was the manager of the restaurant and he added lots and lots of meat to my bowl as we talked and then he poured me an excellent cup of mint tea.

Another highlight came when we were at the police station and an older man--well, probably 50 but looking much older--a chain smoker with crooked rotting teeth and a sweet smile found me walking towards a store and hurried over to give me a popsicle. I found, really, that several of the men on the bus became sort of protective of me in a way.

A lowlight, and sorry about this mom, but more in the excrement vein. As I mentioned earlier, my stomach started feeling a bit dodgy in Yining and it was not any better during the bus ride. Thus, on two occasions I found myself squatting in the great outdoors, sheltered by a small tree once and in the midst of two or three piles of rock and trash the second time. On this second occasion two dogs started barking from behind a fence, making another man making use of this area to jump up with his pants unbuckled and falling and run to another spot. Those of you knowing of my history with dogs in Asia, of my bite in Kinmen, perhaps might imagine my heart pumping just a bit faster, making it all the harder to take care of business. And then, as my last meal came out of me with a splash, I noticed sitting not two feet away the fresh looking carcass of a stillborn puppy. Brown fur matted, looking as if it had not dried long before, stiff. Not much bigger than my hand.

I was very happy to be finished.

And now in Kuqa, or Kucha as it might be better spelled (Chinese maps are always different when using English spellings). Yesterday I took a tour of surrounding desert sites with an Australian and a Japanese guy met in the hotel. Rather, we rented a car and driver together. The scenery was stunning, jagged desert and snow capped peaks. Ruins. But it was pouring down rain and windy and cold. Then there was a flash flood and the car became stuck in a small river pouring across the road, the water the color of chocolate milk (and not unlike the results of my most recent bathroom visits). The driver said straight away get out and push. The water was just up to the bottom of the door. Took of my shoes and rolled up my pants and said hell with that. I walked through the water, sinking in mud, to where there was road. But my two companions were better men than me, and with help of 7 or 8 Uighers were able to pull the car up and out of the mud. I didn't feel great about not helping, but I was just fed up at that point. Sometimes it happens. And I got to take pictures this way.

I have to wonder if everyone has such bad luck as me with cars and buses in Asia. I know they are not the most reliable, but when I add up boat, bus and car experiences in Cambodia, Laos, and China, it seems to me that at least 90 percent of mine have had something go wrong. Surely this percentage is higher than normal?!

Or maybe not.

Today: walking around and meeting people, taking pictures, etc. Tomorrow morning off to Kashgar, and then maybe Taskurgan in the same day as possible. Unless things change and I end up going to Tibet (doubtful) I should be wrapping up my western experiences sometime about a week from now, ending it with a 60-some hour train odyssey from Kashgar to Xian. But who knows what might change between now and then!

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how many hours have you spent in wheeled, automated conveyances? This reminds me of the movie "Tess of the D'Urbervilles," in which we see her plodding painfully across a wet grim English countryside. I imagine you will appreciate your old Saturn all the more. For Christman, I want you to give me a map of Asia with your route outlined in ink.
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